Exploring Tansman’s Folk-Influenced Piano Music

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TANSMAN: 8 Novelettes. 3 Preludes en Forme de Blues. 20 Pièces faciles sur des mélodies populaires polonaises. Suite dans le Style Ancien / Danny Zelibor, pianist / Toccata Classics TOCC0265

This, the second volume of Danny Zelibor’s traversal of the piano works of Alexandre Tansman, focuses on his jazz-influenced scores of the 1930s. Although these are evidently the first complete recordings of the 8 Novelettes, the sixth of these—titled “Blues: Andante cantabile”—was indeed recorded previously, in 1956 at Walter Gieseking’s last recording session. The music requires the performer to “pull back” on the beat in order to produce the slightly out-of-synch style required to simulate the blues. I’m happy to say that Zelibor does this, but more interestingly, so did Gieseking!

Not all the pieces on this album are blues- or jazz-influenced, of course; several are, but others are informed by Gypsy and Polish dance music, particularly the mazurka, polonaise and polka. I’m happy to say that Zelibor, a pianist with an extremely sensitive touch, gives them all just the right spirit. Surprisingly, Novelette No. 7, the “Prelude and fugue,” is played with a jazzy lilt to it.

Of course, the 3 Preludes in the Form of the Blues, from 1937, is uncompromising in its simulation of blues piano; and please note how much more it sounds like real jazz or blues than most of George Gershwin’s pieces. I’ve been saying for decades that Gershwin, clever though he was, was a couple of steps removed from real jazz music, therefore his “jazz-classical” pieces sound much more raggy than jazzy. Just compare any of these three blues to ones that Gershwin wrote, particularly the second, and you’ll see that I am right.

The 20 Facile Pieces on Popular Polonaise Melodies is lighter fare, but once again Zelibor zeroes in on what is best in this music and presents it to us with the right spirit and feel. He has a rich, deep-in-the-keys touch that works wonders with this rather slight material, elevating it to a new standard. His delicate tracing of the music line rewards the patient listener with beauty after beauty in the unfolding of these scores.

By contrast, the Suite in the Ancient Style has more vigor and backbone in it, and Zelibor plays it exceedingly well. Curiously, the “Gavotte” in this suite is played by Zelibor with a hint of a jazz beat in it. Since this was composed in 1929, near the tail end of the “jazz age,” I wouldn’t be surprised if Tansman had that in mind when he wrote it.

All in all, then, a fascinating album, and one sure to make all of you Gershwin-lovers out there scratch your heads a little!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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